When it comes to the question “how do nootropics work”, it is tough to boil things down into a one size fits all answer. There are dozens of different nootropic substances and each of them interacts with the brain in a distinct way.
We can, however, break them down into different categories based on the brain functions in which they affect. Some nootropics may interact in your brain by influencing the production of certain chemicals, while others may instead help to promote improved blood circulation and nutrient absorption. Some may do both. Others may do neither.
In general, nootropics help to improve your cognitive abilities in one or moreof the following ways:
Protect your brain
Some nootropics function as neuroprotectors, meaning that they help to protect your brain against other substances that can impair cognitive abilities like memory and information processing.
For example, l-theanine is an amino acid found in tea leaves. One of its functions is to inhibit the release of the excitatory chemical glutamate in the brain. Glutamate is a natural and necessary substance in your brain, but at high levels, it can induce feelings of stress and uneasiness.
Modulate brain chemicals
Nootropics can also work by increasing the production of certain types of chemicals in your brain, known as neurotransmitters. These are signal messengers that travel from nerve to nerve. Brain chemicals such as GABA, serotonin, and dopamine are known to enhance your feeling of well-being.
For example, a nootropic like 5 HTP boosts the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin in your brain, which helps to produce a relaxed, worry-free state of mind.
On the flip side, some types of nootropics work in the opposite way: by blocking the production of neurotransmitters that produce unwanted effects like stress and apprehension.
For instance, some nootropic substances help to improve your mood by targeting and inhibiting the production of cortisol, which is a neurotransmitter directly associated with stress.
Support brain energy
Nootropics such as creatine (a non-essential amino acid) help to boost the brain’s energy by increasing the output of certain chemicals such as adenosine triphosphate (ATP) in your brain cells.
ATP is derived from the breakdown of food molecules like amino acids and glucose and is your brain’s primary chemical fuel source.
The increased availability of ATP in the brain is believed to boost cognitive skills such as critical thinking and short-term memory. Some studies on creatine, for instance, have demonstrated that it increases ATP production which in turn helps to improve the cognitive performance.
Regulate brain waves
Another way in which some nootropics interact with your brain is by regulating the frequency of your brain waves. It all sounds pretty complicated…and it kind of is.
But in general terms, your brain waves fluctuate across a number of different frequencies, from delta at the low end, all the way up to gamma at the high end.
Different frequencies are associated with different states of mind. Some nootropics help to boost a particular brain wave frequency to produce a desired mental state.
For instance, theta brain waves (which are on the lower end of the frequency spectrum) are believed to be closely associated with the creative process and the subconscious mind.
On the other hand, nootropics like Modvigil help to boost Alpha brain waves (they’re more in the middle of the spectrum), which helps to alleviate stress-related feelings by producing a calm, relaxed mental state.
Support brain blood flow
Improved blood flow, circulation, and oxygen utilization are also benefits associated with some kinds of nootropics. Substances like ginkgo biloba (a natural herb), target tiny blood vessels in the brain, helping to increase oxygen uptake by the nerve cells these vessels supply.
Increased cerebral blood circulation is believed to improve your ability to perform cognitive tasks such as those that require memory recall and information processing.